Fort Worth is ramping up efforts to end criminal activities at private businesses, city staff told council members Aug. 29.
The city is preparing to file four nuisance abatement lawsuits against property owners who are allowing crime to fester at their businesses, according to an informal report presented to City Council. Staff did not disclose which businesses are being targeted.
“There have been years and years and years of problem properties that make life hell for people who are just trying to be at home in peace,” District 5 council member Gyna Bivens said. “And so we started taking a more aggressive look at, ‘What can we do?’”
State statute allows local law enforcement to close businesses believed to be involved in illegal activities for a year by suing the owners. A successful suit doesn’t need to prove that owners participated in crimes — it only needs to prove they let them occur or failed to stop them.
“If it’s a place where people habitually go to commit certain kinds of crimes, (like) prostitution, drugs, murders — if they’re committing those crimes at these places — we can file suit,” Benjamin Sampract, senior assistant city attorney and part of the city’s nuisance abatement team, said.
Last year, the city filed only one lawsuit, and in 2021, it filed two.
Nuisance abatement investigations can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months, according to the Fort Worth Police Department. Investigations don’t necessarily result in lawsuits, however.
Sampract told council members that property owners often take steps to resolve crime at their business after speaking with city staff at an accord meeting. These meetings are hosted to educate the owner about the problems at their property and develop a plan to address them.
According to the informal report, owners who hire security, remove game machines, add better lighting and cameras or remove certain store inventory are often successful at resolving the problems at their property. In east Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Report examined the high crime rate at a local Texaco and the owner’s plans to improve security amid scrutiny from the city.
When the accord meetings are successful, the city doesn’t have to move forward with a lawsuit. So far this year, the city has hosted eight accord meetings. It hosted four in 2022 and two in 2021.
District 4 council member Charlie Lauersdorf asked Sampract whether property owners could get away with making small changes in order to avoid a lawsuit and whether those changes would put the city’s nuisance abatement team back at step one.
“The case law tells us to abate a nuisance isn’t to eliminate it in its entirety,” Sampract said. “To abate a nuisance is to lessen it.”
To that end, he said, not all strategies a business tries will work to abate the nuisance. But the statute is intended to provide property owners the leeway and opportunity to resolve the issue themselves.
If the owner is unwilling to make changes to improve the property, however, the city will move forward with a lawsuit.
One Tarrant County property currently involved in a nuisance abatement lawsuit is strip club Temptations Cabaret. The club made headlines earlier this year, after four people were shot and killed on the property in the past five years.
The nuisance lawsuit was filed against the strip club by Tarrant County; most recently, a judge ruled that if the bar is allowed to reopen, it will do so with new security measures and reduced operating hours.
As part of its nuisance abatement ramp-up, the city attorney’s office has also reinstituted its internship program with Texas A&M School of Law; through that internship, law students will have the opportunity to participate in nuisance abatement litigation.
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